Rick Spielman had a decision to make.
There was Case Keenum, the journeyman quarterback the Vikings had signed as an insurance policy for $2 million in the offseason, who’d suddenly led Minnesota to the NFC title game, in the process catalyzing one of the most iconic moments in Vikings history.
There was Teddy Bridgewater, the guy who brought the Vikings 27 yards away from a home playoff win two seasons prior, who’d finally worked his way back from a devastating knee injury.
There was Sam Bradford, who the Vikings traded a first-round pick for. That’s about all I’ve got there.
And then there was Kirk Cousins, the rarest of rare commodities in the NFL — a starting-caliber quarterback, in his prime, hitting the open market in free agency. And the Vikings had the cap space to sign him.
For what it’s worth, wludford wrote about this exactly a year ago today. 71% of DN readers said they’d rather have Keenum over Cousins. So what would’ve happened?
The alternate reality in which the Vikings re-sign Case Keenum
The question, obviously, was always going to be this: was Keenum’s magical 2017 season a mirage? After going undrafted after an unbelievable college career (serious, if you don’t know, Case Keenum is one of the best college quarterbacks of all time), he’d earned two different starting jobs. But neither of them had worked out, and when he signed with the Vikings, he probably wasn’t expecting to be a starter.
Then Bradford got injured and Keenum never looked back. Despite the fact that Mike Zimmer never actually named him the starter, Keenum led the Vikings to a 13-2 record as a starter (he also saved the Vikings in the one game he didn’t start when Bradford briefly came back).
Let’s remember, the Vikings had a lot of issues in 2018 that had nothing to do with Cousins. Replacing Cousins with Keenum wouldn’t make the offensive line play better, it wouldn’t improve the kicking game and it wouldn’t prevent injuries on the defensive side of the ball.
But given the talent on both sides of the ball, the season couldn’t have gone much worse, and we know Keenum performed way, way better under pressure than Cousins did. In 2017, he led the NFL in QBR when pressured. So it makes sense that he’d have done better with a bad offensive line than Cousins did.
Ok, finally time for random hypotheticals: Keenum makes the Vikings win the Buffalo game and the first Chicago game. Minnesota goes 10-5-1, earns a wild-card berth and falls apart on the road in Dallas. As much as I love Keenum and will almost never have bad things to say about him, it’s tough to dispute that his playoff performance (post-first half of the Saints game) was not great. There were a lot of reasons the Vikings came out flat in the NFC Championship Game, but Keenum certainly didn’t help.
Because of camaraderie, I do think the Vikings could’ve won those early-season games, especially the Buffalo one. For what it’s worth, Cousins did play well in the tie against Green Bay, but that was also a winnable game. Anyways, that’s what I got.
The alternate reality in which the Vikings re-sign Teddy Bridgewater
Disclaimer: Teddy Bridgewater is probably my favorite player in the NFL. Like a lot of Vikings fans, Teddy Bridgewater will always have a place in my heart, no matter what jersey he’s wearing. And the idea of Bridgewater coming back from that injury, reclaiming his spot as the Vikings’ starter and finally leading our tortured fan base to a Super Bowl win was the biggest thing driving my mindset at this time. It probably still is, honestly.
This is based almost entirely on emotion and not on statistics, so feel free to complain about it.
Hypothetical scenario: Spielman re-signs Teddy to a “prove it” deal. Keenum goes to the Broncos. Cousins goes to the Jets for $100 million and the New York Post sportswriters have to find something else to write about. Bradford still gets a ton of money to play like two games. The Vikings, still with a ton of cap space, spend it on upgrading their offensive line (maybe Justin Pugh or Andrew Norwell, among others).
Bridgewater develops instant chemistry with Dalvin Cook, who plays the full 16 games. Minnesota’s defense takes another step as the best in the NFL. Adam Thielen leads the NFL in receiving. Bridgewater’s ability to move outside the pocket negates the offensive line’s deficiencies and opens up the offense. The Vikings go 14-2 and earn home-field advantage. The Saints come to town for the NFC Championship Game and lose when Bridgewater finds Thielen for a 62-yard score with no time remaining. Someone thinks of a name even better than the Minneapolis Miracle.
The Vikings head to Atlanta and Bridgewater outplays Tom Brady to give the Vikings their first Super Bowl. I’m sitting here right now, writing about how the Vikings are primed for a repeat.
Meanwhile in reality...
The Vikings got a lot of bad bounces in 2018. Changing their quarterback probably wouldn’t have negated a lot of the things that happened. The reality is that the Vikings had enough cap space to sign Cousins, and most people agreed that it was unlikely he’d be worse than Keenum (that was also assuming Keenum would regress on an absurd 2017 season in which he became a fringe MVP candidate). The idea was that the Vikings were already set at most other positions, and a slight upgrade at quarterback might be all it took to get them over the hump.
I was excited when Cousins chose to sign with the Vikings. I would’ve preferred Bridgewater or Keenum, but as I’ve said before, Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer know a lot more about football than I do. And I thought Cousins was a good player who could help the Vikings get even better.
A year later, some people are already counting the days till that 3-year deal is over. I’m not there yet, but the Vikings will, at minimum, have to make the playoffs this season for me to keep my faith. This is not about whether or not Cousins has been good or will be good, it’s about supporting your team no matter what. And hey, if it doesn’t work out, the Vikings can draft McKenzie Milton in 2021. Don’t say I didn’t tell ya.